|Monkee magic: the nature of conversion?|
“I saw her face
Now I’m a believer
There’s not a trace
Of doubt in my mind:
I’m in love Whoah-oh
I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her if I tried.”
“What hath the Monkees to do with Jerusalem?”, you may well ask. Well, there is a strand of Christian thought that treats conversion as just this sort of ‘Monkee magic.’
One minute you’re a sinner, even, like Paul, a persecutor of Christians, but then in one magic moment God reveals Himself and suddenly, you’re a believer, numbered among the saints.
But for the ancients, catching sight of a god was not always such a fortuitous affair. Take the story of Actaeon. This young huntsman was stalking through the Attic glades, his hounds hot on the scent of a young buck. As they chased deeper into the woods, the dark canopy overhead began to break up, and he found himself in a bright glade, where the sunbeams played on crystal water. And in that water – what a sight! Even with her back turned, he had never seen such radiant beauty: the woman bathing naked before him must surely be divine. And, alas for him, so she was. Diana, Artemis, maiden-goddess of the Hunt, turned her face to him in shame and rage: and as he stood transfixed by her glory, his body began to twist and change. He hunched forward onto all fours, fur started to sprout from his skin, his head split with pain as bones flowered from the temples, his hands hardened into hooves:- and before he could think to spring away, his own baying hounds turned on him and savaged him: for the hunter had become the prey; Actaeon had been turned into a stag.
So, a second and more famous question: what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem? The story of Actaeon seems a far cry from the conversion experience of Paul. But maybe not so far, I think. Because doesn’t God tell Moses in Exodus that ‘no one can see Me and live?’ And doesn’t St John write that ‘no one has seen God at anytime?’ So, in the conversion of St Paul, I think there’s a certain conflict: on the one hand, we’ve got the mystical ‘Monkee magic’ experience of seeing God and being instantly converted, transformed into a Christian; and on the other, the impossibility of coming face-to-face with God and surviving the encounter, the unspeakable transformation of Actaeon in the face of the naked power of the Divine.
I’m wary of navel-gazing, and don’t want to be self-indulgent, but my own experience is not unlike Paul’s, and I think it might shed some light on the matter. I was brought up unchurched and unbaptised. The prospect of our family going to church on a Sunday was about as remote as Timbuctoo. As a boy, I was broadly indifferent to such things; but as a teenager, at about fourteen or fifteen, I started to make a decisive stand against religion in general, and Christianity in particular: or, at least, against the variety of bland, establishment Protestantism that I had been brought up to equate with Christianity. At University, I was known in the Debating Union and around the pub table alike as a militant and outspoken heathen. My arguments were well-versed and, I thought at the ripe old age of nineteen, sharply honed; I gave no quarter. For me, this world of matter was all there was, and pure reason all we needed to understand it, unfettered by the facile superstitions of yore. My ‘Damascus’ was Japan, where I spent a couple of years teaching after I had graduated. And yes, there, like Paul, I had a sudden experience that I can describe only as mystical. Things led up to it, pointed to it, sure: conversations with a Buddhist monk I practiced Aikido with and a theistically-inclined neighbour in the flat below mine; the general religiosity that pervades Japan, with its bustling Shinto shrines on every street corner and the vermilion cheer of their torii gates, or the simple serenity of the local Buddhist temple; and, not least, the newly-found love for the girl who would six years later become my wife. Each of these things heralded the experience in its own way, but I cannot deny that at that instant, something changed.
I was lying on my futon one morning, and the ray of light that shone through the slatted blinds might have been sunlight, but I’m not too sure that it was physically there: because I felt it more than saw it, and what’s more, it felt like the light was shining somehow inside me. That feeling was, really, beyond words – but a feeling of intense love, light, and oneness with the world. Harmony, radiance. It was – and remains – singular, incomparable. And it’s hard, even now, after six years reflecting on it, to put it any more clearly. Sorry. Now, bear in mind that I was not really brought up a Christian, and so I didn’t know what to make of the experience I’d had; like Paul, I was blinded by the light, and so much so that I certainly couldn’t make out ‘God’ behind it. As I was in Japan, it was more natural to explore the native Buddhism: I found myself deeply sympathetic to much of that religion’s thought, and remain so to this day.
Now, both St Paul and I needed those spiritual experiences for God to push us in the right direction. Some people need that, others don’t: some have the good fortune of being born into the faith, and continue in it without the need for such drama. But the journey of conversion does not end with that sort of experience. And for me, it was not until I started teaching at Exeter Cathedral School that the scales really fell from my eyes. It took being part of a living Christian community to lead me to Christ. I do believe that, in the experience He had given me, God took the initiative of opening my mind and heart to the possibility of faith. But it was through the living body of His Church, through other people, that He continued to draw me to conversion. And so, I’m not sure that Paul’s conversion was quite as decisive as advocates of charismatic experiences might want us to believe. Even after his mind-blowing encounter with God, even after Jesus has spoken to him personally, Paul remains blinded – until another person, Ananias, a member of the Church, leads him back to sight. So while I do believe that St Paul saw God on that Damascus road, just as those who saw Jesus saw God, or as Jacob did when he wrestled with Him, yet, that sight was only partial. Even St Paul could not look upon God in the fullness of His glory; just the radiance of the divine light leaves him blind and groping. We cannot look upon that which is beyond imagining, we cannot understand that which is beyond comprehending, we cannot be one with that which is beyond all sense of oneness or multiplicity.
Paul’s conversion, then, his turning to God, could not be ‘complete.’
Likewise, our encounter with God can never be complete in this world, because God is beyond our wildest dreams of completion. Even the most intense religious experience, even the most heartfelt affirmation of faith, can be only a pale reflection of the glory that awaits us when we are truly reconciled to God in His Kingdom. For now, we must keep living in the shadows, looking for reflections of God’s light wherever we can find them. And so, conversion has more to do with what happened to Paul after his conversion experience than the experience itself: more like the gradual dropping of scales from our eyes than the sudden flash of blinding light.
Faith, I think, is a kind of vision. As we tread the path of conversion, and I for one am still just starting to find my way, we find that the shadows recede, and we see God’s light more and more, reflected in places and things and people where we never expected to find it, until ultimately, in union with Him, we will see all things illuminated in His glory. If faith is such a vision of life, then conversion is our effort to perfect it, through love and prayer, through our journey in the life of the Church.
Conversion is not the work of an instant. It’s not about a sudden feeling and saying ‘I believe,’ job done, I’m ‘saved.’ It’s not even about me making an act of commitment, being baptised, or assenting to the propositions of the Creeds or Scripture. Ultimately, it’s not so much about me and my salvation at all. It’s more about putting me last, putting other people before me and God first of all. You see, my own conversion, like S. Paul’s, has never been just ‘me and God.’ Both he and I needed godly people to prepare us for that experience in the first place; we needed them to guide us on after. And by the grace of God, the best we can do as Christians is be such godly people, to put others first and guide them along the same path: to open ourselves to God’s love so that He can work through us, here and now, to build up His Kingdom. This is conversion: and it will not be complete until every part of God’s Creation is reunited with its divine source. For then, and only then, at the dawn of the New Creation, will we be able to look upon that light face-to-face in glorious union.